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She turns the shower hot, cold, hot again. The water pounds the top of her head, runs down the lengths of her hair, down her arms, down her legs. She puts her one foot over the plughole. The water rises until it is at her ankle. She moves her foot away again and the water drains out. She shivers, rubs soap into herself, rinses. She steps out of the shower, walks across the tiles, out of the bathroom, into the bedroom. Wet footsteps follow her. Puddles on the tiles, dark shapes on the carpet. She opens the doors that lead onto the balcony; that shut the outside from the in. She stands, lets the heat dry her. She runs her fingers through her hair, pulls at the knots. Neil’s fingers make tit-tit sounds on the keys of his laptop. He doesn’t look up.
She doesn’t know how to dress.
She feels cooked from the sun. She feels cold. The hair on her arms, the back of her neck, the downy fuzz on her face, it all stands to attention.
She pulls clothes from the wardrobe.
She puts on sandals, knickers, a bra, a summer dress. She wraps a scarf round her neck and slips her arms into her thickest winter jumper before pulling it over her head.
Downstairs she looks into each room as if to remind herself, as if she’s never seen them before. She goes to the kitchen, hunts through cupboards, through drawers. She finds a packet of fruit and nut mix and puts it in her pocket. She shouts to Neil that she’s going, that she’ll pick up some things, that she won’t be long. She takes her bag.
Outside, on the doorstep, the sun is hot. At the end of the drive, on the pavement, the sun seems hotter. She can feel the sweat leaking out of her, from the backs of her knees, her elbow cracks, her neck. The wool of her jumper scratches her. She thinks about turning back, going back into the house, taking the jumper off. Instead she looks at the house, from the roof to where the first row of bricks is. It’s like she takes a picture, for later, in case she needs it. She knows she’ll need it.
In front of her, as she walks, a heat haze rises up from the ground. The tarmac on the road looks shiny and sticky. She takes the packet of fruit and nut mix from her pocket and opens it. She eats a handful but her mouth is too dry. It takes her too long to chew them and then swallow. There is a paste left on her tongue. She empties the remainder of the packet onto the floor, shaking everything loose as she walks. She hears the peanuts hitting the floor.
Someone is walking towards her. A man she recognises then doesn’t.
‘Bit hot for that jumper isn’t it?’ he says to her, laughing.
She hugs her body and the man carries on walking past her. She can feel the sweat thickening, making rivers down her back and pooling between her bum cheeks.
‘Hey,’ she shouts, turning. ‘Hey.’ The man turns, he’s not that far from her.
‘Me?’ he says, pointing to himself, tapping his chest with his fingers.
‘Is there somewhere near here I can get a drink? My mouth,’ she says, ‘my mouth feels like carpet. I can hardly speak.’
‘Aren’t you from around here?’ the man says.
‘I live down there.’ She points back down to the end of the road, to behind the man, in the direction he was walking.
‘The parade, love,’ he says. ‘The parade of shops is straight on down where you’re going. Are you OK?’
‘Thanks,’ she says, turning back from him. ‘Thanks,’ she shouts.
She wonders what is wrong with her, wonders why she feels like this. She doesn’t know who she is anymore. She doesn’t know where she came from.
The empty packet of fruit and nut mix slips through her fingers.
The shops are all there, where the man said they would be, where she can remember them being. They look cool inside. Fans disturb the bunting and price signs, flapping them in and out. She thinks of children, of herself as a child, singing Oh-the-Okey-Kokey and falling down.
She steps in to a butcher’s shop. The man behind the counter is wearing a clean white apron.
‘What time are you closing?’ she says.
‘Soon. What you after, doll? I’ve not got much left because of the weather.’
She doesn’t like that he calls her doll, she doesn’t like that his apron is so clean.
‘Nothing,’ she says.
‘I haven’t seen you in here for a while.’
It confuses her. The coolness of the shop, the heat from outside caught under her dress and jumper, the man. The smell of iron and disinfectant.
‘Was I coming here before? I mean, did I come here?’
‘Before when?’ he says. ‘Are you OK?’
He looks like he might come from behind the counter.
‘It’s the heat,’ she says. ‘I need a drink. Is there a bar?’
‘Course,’ he says. His eyebrows are crinkled, his face is creased.
‘I’ll find it,’ she says.
She wonders why it’s still this hot, why her skin feels as if it’s burning. She forgot her watch.
Further down the road she can see a sign sticking out from a wall. It says Lola’s. She knows that name. She stops walking.
A card from Lola’s was inside Neil’s wallet. He took her there once. She drank a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps two. She’d met a friend there a couple of times.
She walks towards it, goes inside, lifts herself onto a stool. A barman with close-shaved hair and a shirt rolled up past his elbows comes over to her.
‘Hi,’ he says, ‘what can I get you? Do you need a menu? Are you on your own?’
‘Why do you need to know?’ she wants to ask him. ‘Why do you need to know if I’m on my own?’ She wants to tell him that she’s not. She’s not on her own because she has a husband, she has a house, she has a life. She doesn’t. She doesn’t tell him. Instead, she says, ‘I’ll have the menu.’
There are lists. There are lists of cocktails, beers, red wines, white wines, blush wines, champagne.
‘I don’t know what I want,’ she says. Not to him, not out loud she thinks.
‘Well, what do you like?’
She looks up from the menu. He has both his hands on the bar. He is leaning slightly towards her, smiling. She wants to trace the line of his nose with her fingers because she thinks it is perfect.
She looks back at the menu. ‘I don’t know what half of this is. Can I try some from each list?’
He laughs. It’s like she told a joke.
‘What?’ she says.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Shall I bring you a bucket?’
‘In case I’m ill?’
‘In case there’s something you don’t like, or in case you don’t want to swallow it all. You can spit it in the bucket.’
‘A bucket, yes. OK.’
She watches him pour, pop tops and slice lemons.
‘I should know,’ she says, ‘shouldn’t I?’
‘What you like?’ he says. He lines drinks up on the bar for her. ‘Tastes change. It’s always good to try different things.’
‘I should know.’
The drinks are cold. They are sweet and sharp and bitter. She scoops out an ice cube from a cocktail and wipes it over her neck, under the collar of her jumper. The barman serves other people their drinks. He is away from her. He has left her alone, sipping.
A phone rings. It plays salsa music.
She leans her head to one side, her left ear is closer to the ground than the other. The ringing is louder.
She gets off her stool, picks up her bag, unzips it.
The screen says, ‘HOME.’
This is strange to her. It seems odd for a phone to even be ringing like this, in her hand. It seems peculiar for her to have saved a number for something, for a house, not a person. A static object, a non-mover, non-breather. To call it home.
She cuts off the call, puts the phone on the bar and drinks from her cocktail. She chases it with her beer. The next time the phone rings it says ‘NEIL.’ She can believe this. It seems more real for a person to be calling, for it to be Neil, for it to be her husband. She watches the phone ring, cut off. It vibrates with a message for a voicemail. She turns the phone off, puts it in her bag.
Music is playing.
‘Was this on before?’ she calls to the barman.
‘The music. Was this on before?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I turned it up.’
‘I’m so hot,’ she says, not to the barman, not to anyone.
She takes her shot on the rocks. She carries it with her to the toilets, locks herself in a cubicle. She pulls down her knickers, sits on the toilet, drinks the shot. It tastes like nothing she knows the name of.
Her pee is like acid. It is hot, it burns, it is unnatural.
She takes an ice cube from her empty glass and tries to push it up inside her. A noise escapes her. A noise that is foreign and painful.
Someone has come in to the toilets, is sitting in the cubicle next to her.
‘Are you OK in there?’ they say.
She is silent. She picks her feet off the floor.
The ice cube is melting, slipping. Its coldness runs from her. It falls into the water below. It makes a plop sound. She giggles, waits for the person next door to flush, to wash, to leave.
At the bar no one looks at her. The person couldn’t have told. What could they have told?
She pays her bill and apologises for not finishing all of her drinks. ‘Sorry for the waste,’ she says.
Outside seems cooler. Outside she can breathe again.
Home. The word jars and repeats like a nick in the surface of a CD. She says it out loud whilst walking past restaurants, Indian takeaways and a florist. There is no one to hear her. She says, ‘Home.’ She breathes out the aitch like warm breath into cold hands. It is a meditation, almost. It is, ‘Om,’ it is ‘Ome.’
She looks in through shop windows, through glass-fronted doors with their ‘Closed,’ signs dangling, slanted, drunk. She counts her steps in her head, she misses the cracks. How far, she wonders. It already seems so far that she’s walked, so far that she’s got to walk.
There is noise. Women’s voices fade in and out whilst the view in front of her warps. It is like looking through the bottom of a glass bowl, she thinks. It is like looking through the bottom of a greasy glass bowl.
A door to a shop is open. She looks up to see a sign that reads Ribbon & Lace. There are streamers in the window attached to balloons. Flowers are piled into vases of Egyptian size. It is an opening party.
Inside a woman hands her a glass of pink champagne.
‘I’m Anya,’ the woman says. ‘This is my new shop. I’m giving everyone a special discount for opening night only so make the most of it!’ The woman wanders off, chats to other women, eats something of morsel quantity from a silver tray on the counter.
The shop is too small and there are too many people inside it. It smells like lavender, hairspray, savoury canapés.
She walks around, bumping into people, saying sorry. She feels the sleeves of blouses, rubs corduroy between her fingers.
Someone is next to her. They are saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful? Aren’t there some lovely bits? I love it all! I want to buy it all! Are you going to get something?’
She ignores the woman. She tells herself, ‘Yes, yes I will buy myself something.’
The clothes are not like the clothes she owns. They are delicate, they are pretty, they are girlie, she might say. She takes a lace camisole from a rail, a floral skirt, a cardigan. She tries on necklaces and bracelets, layering herself up like a tailor’s dummy.
‘Can I try these?’ she asks the woman who handed her the champagne. ‘Is there somewhere to try this, Anya?’
‘Follow me,’ Anya says.
The camisole is too revealing, the skirt shrinks her within it. The necklace makes the skin on her neck itch. The cardigan sheds fur as she pulls the sleeves onto her arms. Bits get in her mouth and up her nose.
She leaves her old clothes in the changing room and walks out in front of the other women in her new clothes.
‘I’ll take it all!’
Anya and the other women laugh. ‘Are you leaving it all on?’ Anya says.
She pays. She drinks a glass of pink champagne and eats a sausage roll.
Back outside the sky has turned pink.
For a moment she forgets the direction she is going in. She feels the skin on her chest. It is hot, sticky. She walks.
‘Your clothes,’ someone is shouting. ‘Excuse me but you’ve forgotten your clothes!’
A hand is tapping her. A woman is in front of her, pushing a pile of clothes towards her.
‘Sell them,’ she tells the woman. It’s not Anya. ‘I don’t want them, tell the woman to sell them.’
She carries on walking. She keeps on saying, ‘Home, home.’
The sun slinks away, slowly emptying the picture around her of light. The pavement seems longer than before, stealing from her more steps, more breaths. The houses are bigger. They are getting bigger, moving further apart from one another. She looks at them for a brief moment then turns her head away.
She walks with her eyes on the pavement, her eyes on the gutter.
She begins to hum. She is watching the pavement sift under her feet. She sees the nuts, the black shiny currants. ‘How strange,’ she says. ‘How strange.’
Her steps slow down. She feels that she wants to crawl, get down on all fours and move along the pavement like a baby. Like a sniffer dog, like a commando. She feels that she has to follow this trail, like someone left it for her, like it is a sign.
A car reverses from its drive. A horn alerts her, freezes her, sends her jumping back up to her feet. The woman inside the car is looking at her like she’s crazy, like she belongs somewhere. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine,’ she says. ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you. I’ll be more careful.’
‘Yes,’ the woman says. ‘You could get yourself in trouble.’
The car backs right out, gets onto the road, sets off down it and disappears around a bend.
A shiver runs the length of her body. She pulls her cardigan in tighter, wishes she hadn’t left her jumper in the shop; that she had taken it back from the woman who called after her. Goose pimples lift the hair on her thighs. They catch against the material of the new skirt and tug. It is like pin pricks, it is like bee stings. She rubs them down.
She feels as if she has walked further than she had to. She doesn’t know how far that was, how far that should be.
She stops walking and turns around. She moves more slowly, feeling the pavement with an outstretched foot. She flicks at a small pile of peanuts with her toes and they ricochet outwards like a ripple. She watches a few of them roll around at the entrance to a driveway.
The house at the end of it is big, no, huge. It is red-bricked. The front door is yellow. There is a rose bush. There are two rose bushes and a bay tree. It looks familiar. The lights are on inside but there is no car parked on the drive. No noise escaping, no movement.
Headlights sweep down the road. She hadn’t realised how dark it had got, how quickly the earth had spun from the sun. The headlights are brighter now, they are on her. She is standing in someone’s driveway, she is next to a rose bush, she has a petal in her hand.
The car pulls towards her. The driver seems to turn off the engine, remove the keys from the ignition, open the door and jump out all in one movement. She has been caught.
This is her house. She remembers uprooting the rose bush from her mother’s back garden and planting it here. She remembers picking the paint for the door. The driver of the car is Neil.
‘Don,’ he says. ‘Donna, where have you been? Your phone, you didn’t…I couldn’t…I went out searching. Where have you been?’
‘I went for a walk. I needed a drink. I bought new clothes. I got lost, I was confused. I put out a trail but… I don’t know. I think it was the sun.’
‘Donna,’ Neil says again. ‘Come here.’
He is standing in front of her, toe-to-toe. He has his arms around her, hugging her into him. He is squeezing her tight, not letting her go. Neil smells like soap, like lemongrass, like sandalwood.
‘I’m sorry,’ Donna says. ‘It must have been the sun. It did something to me. I think I forgot who I was.’
Neil laughs. His tummy bumps against hers. ‘Do you remember now?’
‘I think so,’ she says.
Neil takes her hand, leads her to the front door, in through the house.
‘This skirt,’ Donna says. ‘I have to get this skirt off.’
‘Why did you buy it?
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I like it. I liked it.’
‘I’ll get you a drink,’ Neil says. ‘I’ll be down here waiting for you.’
The front door is still open. Donna looks outside, to the other side of the road. There is a house that looks just like theirs but the door is blue. Instead of rose bushes they have miniature fir trees. All the lights are on inside. She can’t see anyone. Donna shuts the door.
Upstairs she takes off her new clothes, puts on a robe.
She looks at herself in the mirror. Her face is sunburnt. Her hair has dried and gone frizzy. It sticks out, sticks up. She licks her palms and smoothes it down.
‘Who are you?’ she says. ‘Who are you?’
Donna walks to the bedroom window and looks down into the garden. The outside lights are on and she can see the paddling pool. Neil must have let the air out, she thinks. It is tiny, it is made for kids. She wonders how she ever got the lilo in it. She wonders why they ever bought it in the first place.
She goes downstairs.
In the kitchen Neil hands her a drink.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks.
Donna nods. Then she tells him that maybe she would like to move. The house is too big, she tells him. The town is too small. ‘Nothing fits,’ she tells him. She doesn’t like that nothing fits.